The most elegant Jane Fonda as Dr. Katherine Brandt,a
musicologist facing a
grave health challenge.
Miss Jane Fonda Graces the Ahmanson
Stage in 33 Variations"
By Beverly Cohn
Photos by Craig Schwartz
here was something extra special about this particular opening night
at the Ahmanson. The excitement was palpable as Hollywood stars, including
the indomitable Cher, showed up to support one of Americas most
accomplished actresses Miss Jane Fonda. The outpouring was well
rewarded, as Miss Fondas performance in 33 Variations,
beautifully written and directed by Moises Kaufman, was spellbinding
and truly a visual and emotional treat.
A dying Dr. Brandt's obsession with Beethoven's
(Zach Grenier) devotion to a particular waltz.
The most elegant, stunning 72-year-old Miss Fonda plays
Dr. Katherine Brandt, a musicologist battling Lou Gehrigs disease,
a degenerative affliction that attacks the muscles. She is hell-bent
on solving the question as to why Ludwig van Beethoven devoted years
to developing variations to a mediocre waltz composed by Anton Diabelli.
The highly skilled Fonda discovered every possible nuance
and subtlety of her most complex character, filling the stage with her
finely honed theatrical presence. Her physical life is so well developed
that you could swear the character is losing weight before your very
eyes as her already thin frame begins to shrink as her brain ceases
sending messages to her muscles. Her speech becomes labored, as though
her tongue has swollen inside her mouth.
Susan Kellerman as Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, keeper
of the Beethoven archives, assists Dr. Brandt (Jane Fonda) in her research
of Beethoven's variations on the Diabelli waltz.
(L-R) Dr. Brandt's nurse Mike Clark, (Greg Keller)
Clara Brandt, (Samantha Mathis) and Dr. Gertrude Landenburger (Susan
Kellerman) meet to discuss Dr. Brandt's deteriorating condition.
In the waning days of her physical strength, despite
her daughter Claras objections, delicately played by Samantha
Mathis, Dr. Brandt heads to Bonn to research Beethovens papers
where she encounters the appearingly stern Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger,
well played by Susan Kellermann, who guards the precious archives with
a vengeance. Katherine and Clara have a strained relationship that the
worried daughter hopes to resolve before its too late.
In a subtle transition, the very Germanic Ladenburger
becomes a wonderful friend to Katherine helping her in her quest for
Beethovens decision. Katherines theory is that the master
thought he could create a masterpiece from the most banal piece of music.
The elusive Dr. Brandt with her daughter Clara who
is trying to work on their relationship.
What makes the story particularly compelling is how
playwright Kaufman moves the play back and forth between 1819-1823 and
the present, drawing parallels between Beethovens obsessive devotion
to finishing the variations on Diabellis mediocre piece of music
and Katherines obsession to discovering the answer before she
dies. He is losing his hearing while she is losing her body.
(L) Ludwig Van Beethoven (Zach Grenier) with his
devoted assistant Anton Schindler (Grant James Varjas.)
Zach Grenier plays Beethoven with just the right amount
of artistic gusto and temperament, while Grant James Varjas plays his
unrelenting, caring, devoted assistant, Anton Schindler, who protects
his ailing master from creditors and kings alike.
Dr. Brandt's nurse Mike falls in love with her daughter
Ludwig Van Beethoven (Zach
Grenier) creating music
he hears in his head.
Rounding out this most talented ensemble is Greg Kellers
Mike Clark, Katherines nurse who falls in love with Clara. The
Clark character infuses the play with just the right amount of comic
relief that the adorable Keller delivers with impeccable timing.
The technical components are top-notch beginning with
the Scenic Design by Derek McLane, the centerpiece of which are movable
giant racks of sheet music which accommodate the scene changes, magnificently
adorned by David Landers Lighting Design, lavishing the stage
with brilliant colors. Especially eye-popping is the golden hue when
we first see the precious archives letting us know there really is gold
buried in the hundreds of volumes of Beethovens notes.
As Anton Schindler looks on, Anton Diabelli (Don
Amendolia) is pleased with one of Beethoven's variations on his waltz.
Projection Design by Jeff Sugg lets us experience Beethovens
notes by projecting the sheet music on a rear screen as it is being
read by Dr. Brandt or being written by the master.
Pianist/Musical Director Diane Walsh's exquisite
playing brings the beauty of Beethoven's music to life.
Pianist and Musical Director Diane Walsh, her grand
piano sitting off to stage right, plays the corresponding music throughout
the evening adding to the enchantment with her virtuosity.
Director Kaufman keeps the action moving at a pace commensurate
with the story and although this is an emotional evening of theatre,
it is never depressing because its primarily about two determined
people, living centuries apart, struggling to follow their vision while
dealing with extreme physical challenges. It is also about the lives
these people touch and how they are mutually influenced.
Signifying that they both accomplished their goals
before it was too late, Dr. Brandt and Beethoven look on as Anton Diabelli
holds Beethoven's 33 Variations on his mediocre waltz.
The standing ovation Miss Fonda and the superb ensemble
received opening night, paid tribute to a most memorable theatrical
at Leipzig, Just
45 Minutes from Broadway